Wireless speakers and audio buying guide
From Bluetooth speakers to multi-room audio
Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.
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Your smartphone and your Internet connection give you access to an endless supply of music. And wireless speakers and audio systems give you lots of new ways to listen. So many, in fact, that it’s not easy to choose the best gear for your situation. Read on — we’ll help you figure it out.
What we mean by "wireless"
The term "wireless" is a source of some confusion. You can stream music from a smartphone, tablet, or computer to wireless speakers and components. And some wireless speakers and components connect to each other via a wireless network. But there's one wire that remains — the power cord. Wireless home speakers and components need to be plugged into wall outlets. Even portable speakers with built-in batteries need to be plugged in to recharge.
Where do you want to listen?
Knowing where and how you want to listen helps you quickly narrow the field. Below are four of the most common ways people use wireless speakers and audio systems.
All you need is a smartphone and a portable Bluetooth speaker — like the best-selling Bose® SoundLink® Mini Bluetooth® speaker II — to enjoy music outdoors.
1) On the go
Portable Bluetooth® speakers come in a variety of sizes. There are ultra-portable ones that make great traveling companions. Big, beefy models will liven up your tailgate parties or other outdoor get-togethers. Some models are even water- and shock-resistant mdash; ideal for camping or poolside fun.
Bluetooth speakers are easy to pair with your smartphone or tablet. Getting connected usually takes just seconds. It’s a direct connection that doesn’t require a Wi-Fi network, so you can set up an instant audio system just about anywhere. Read our Bluetooth speaker buying guide for more detailed info.
The luxurious MartinLogan Crescendo wireless speaker delivers rich, room-filling sound.
2) In a den, kitchen, or other single room
Want good sound in a bedroom, den, kitchen, dorm room, or apartment? A portable Bluetooth speaker can work. But you'll get richer, more robust sound from a wireless home speaker.
Wireless home speakers draw power from a wall outlet, rather than batteries. They’re larger and more powerful than portable models. They make a good alternative to a component stereo system if space is tight (or if you prefer the simplicity of a single-box system).
Stand-alone vs. multi-room speakers
In this section we cover wireless speakers that stand alone. That means they aren't capable of joining a networked multi-room audio system.
Before you make up your mind, consider multi-room wireless speakers, too. You may need sound in just one room today, but think about your future. You can start with a single multi-room speaker and add more later.
Larger Bluetooth powered speakers are just as simple to use as their portable counterparts. Just place one in your room, plug it into a wall outlet. It’s ready to receive whatever audio you can play through your smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
Using your phone to send music to a Bluetooth speaker is super convenient. But what happens when a call comes in? The music stops. It also stops when you carry your phone beyond the speaker's wireless reception range (usually about 30 feet).
Do you use an Apple iPhone, iPad, or Mac? A wireless powered speaker with AirPlay gives you some additional benefits. For audio, the AirPlay advantage is mainly for streaming music from your computer.
AirPlay uses your home Wi-Fi network to connect to your computer and to access the Internet. In your iTunes program (on your Mac or Windows PC), you can select multiple AirPlay-compatible wireless speakers. You can control the volume for each speaker separately. And you can stream music from your iTunes library to multiple AirPlay speakers at the same time. (All the speakers play the same music.) With an Apple TV, you have even more options for direct access to Internet services and sites for audio. Shop wireless home speakers with AirPlay
Our short video (below) explains the differences between Bluetooth and AirPlay.
Some wireless speakers come with both Bluetooth and AirPlay built-in. This is great if there are Android™ and Apple devices in your household. Shop wireless home speakers with both Bluetooth and AirPlay.
Multi-room audio systems let you use your smartphone to control music throughout your home.
3) Multiple rooms throughout your home
Some wireless speakers can be linked to together on your home Wi-Fi network. You control them with an app on your smartphone or tablet. But unlike Bluetooth speakers, Wi-Fi speakers connect directly to online music services or your computer's music library. The music keeps on playing when your phone rings or when you take your phone to another room.
Music in any (or every) room
Wireless multi-room audio systems offer lots of flexibilty. Play an Internet radio station in the family room, selections from your computer's library in the kitchen, and a Spotify playlist in the den — all at the same time. Or play the same song in multiple rooms. Having a party? Let your Pandora party mix ring throughout the house!
A wireless multi-room audio system can play different music in different rooms from different sources...
...or play the same song all throughout the home.
Use your existing speakers with a multi-room system
Most wireless multi-room audio systems offer more than just powered Wi-Fi speakers. They also have devices that can connect your existing audio/video gear to the wireless system.
TV sound, too
Some wireless multi-room systems offer sound bars. You can enjoy TV sound and wireless music from a single, space-saving product. Some models even let you send TV audio to another room, so you can keep up with the movie while you're making popcorn in the kitchen. Sonos even has a wireless surround sound solution.
Multi-room wireless system options
Most multi-room systems are "closed," meaning they work only with other products from the same brand. The exception is Play-Fi. With Play-Fi, you can mix and match components from several manufacturers.For more info, see our Intro to Play-Fi.
Many home theater receivers include wireless streaming options, such as Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay and Google Cast.
4) Home theater room or family room
If you like having a traditional home theater or home audio setup with a receiver being the heart of your system, good news. Many receivers now come with network connections and some type of wireless technology. This lets you enjoy music streamed from your smartphone, tablet, computer, or the Internet.
Many of today's receivers can connect to a home Wi-Fi network. They let you stream Internet radio stations and online music services such as Pandora® or Spotify®. No need to involve a phone or tablet.
Bluetooth home theater receivers
If you just want to stream music from your smartphone or tablet, a Bluetooth home theater receiver may be all you need. Bluetooth doesn’t require a home wireless network, making it simple to set up. Visiting friends can play music from their portable devices through your system. Shop home theater receivers with built-in Bluetooth.
Bluetooth goes in, but doesn't come out
It's important to understand that a receiver's Bluetooth connectivity is usually one-way. That is, you can stream audio to it via Bluetooth, but you typically can't stream audio from the receiver to a Bluetooth speaker.
Yamaha receivers with MusicCast wireless technology can send (non-Bluetooth) audio to Bluetooth speakers or headphones. And they can send an incoming Bluetooth stream to MusicCast speakers in multiple rooms.
AirPlay home theater receivers
If you own an iPhone, iPad, or use iTunes on your laptop, then you might want to consider a home theater receiver with Apple AirPlay. You can stream audio from your Apple portable or a computer running iTunes. Music information — album art, track titles, and so on — appears on your TV. Shop home theater receivers with AirPlay.
Bluetooth and AirPlay home theater receivers
Some home theater receivers have both Bluetooth and AirPlay built in. Such a receiver can be ideal if you have Apple and Android devices in your family.
WiSA, a new technology for wireless hi-fi and surround sound
Wireless Speaker and Audio (WiSA) technology is a relatively new wireless protocol designed for high-resolution digital audio. It works for stereo music and surround sound. High-performance audio companies such as Klipsch are developing wireless surround sound systems that eliminate the need for a traditional home theater receiver. Shop WiSA components and speakers.